Revisiting the Himalayan Silk Road

Written by Sophie Ibbotson [Bradt Guide author to Kashmir & Ladakh]

Introduction to the Himalayan Silk Road

I criss-crossed every part of Kashmir and Ladakh 10 years ago whilst researching the first edition of Bradt Travel Guides’ Kashmir. Although I already felt I knew India well, this rugged, beautiful part of the Himalayas opened my mind to the idea that the soaring mountains were not a wall between the Indian Subcontinent and lands to the north, but rather more like a hedge, the roots of which tied them together. Numerous trips in the intervening decade have cemented that thesis, and I was delighted when Rahul invited me to create a new tour for Travel the Unknown which explored both the Kashmir Valley and the high altitude desert of Ladakh through the lens of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road is a concept well fixed in our collective imagination, but as Professor Peter Frankopan has emphasised in his best-selling book of the same name, it should be Silk Roads in the plural. The spider’s web of historic trading routes spanned Eurasia but also stretched south into India. And although the conventional narrative is that the Silk Roads came to an end after Vasco da Gama pioneered a maritime route between Europe and India, the reality is that overland continued, albeit on a less impressive scale, well into the 20th century.  

With this new itinerary I wanted to weave together many of the things which fascinate me about the Silk Road. It wasn’t just merchants, pack animals, and trade goods which were transported along these routes, but ideas, too. I was thrilled to be asked to lead the first Himalayan Silk Road tour in July 2023 and to be able to see and share with guests the physical evidence of the Silk Road’s legacy.

Kargil - Silk Road Museum

It’s hard to pinpoint a single highlight, but if pressed I would say that it was the time we spent in Kargil. This is a district which most tourists pass straight through on the drive from Kashmir to Ladakh, but we stayed for two nights in Kargil town. Situated at a crossroads equidistant between Leh, Padum, Skardu, and Srinagar, Kargil was always an important trading centre, with a large bazaar and caravanserais (Silk Road warehouses crossed with motels) overlooking the river. Our guide in Kargil, Muzammil Hussain, was a cultural heritage specialist and runs the Munshi Aziz Bhat Museum of Central Asian Trade Goods (AKA Kargil Museum), an extraordinary collection of everyday objects traded between Central Asia and Ladakh in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Muzammil and his uncle took inspiration from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford when deciding their curatorial style, so each cabinet and case is dedicated to a different item, be it horse tack, buttons, medicines, or hats. This makes it easy for even untrained eyes to compare and contrast products from different places and periods. 
After visiting the museum, Muzammil guided us through Kargil’s Old Town, pointing out features such as the mosque adjoined to a Sikh gurdwara, the black flags and banners remembering the martyrdom of Hussain (it was the Islamic month of Muharram, a period of mourning), and examples of traditional wooden architecture which still survive amongst modern buildings. We then left the town behind and wound our way along a dead-end road which terminates at the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan. Our destination was the abandoned village of Hunderman, which Muzammil and his friends are preserving as the centrepiece of a social history project, Unlock Hundar.


Hunderman - the abandoned border village

Until 1971, Hunderman was in Pakistan. After the Indo-Pakistan War, the border shifted a short distance, and Hunderman came under Indian control. The nationality of the residents changed overnight, and those who were unfortunately visiting friends or relatives in the next village along the valley were stuck there, unable to return home. Others left Hunderman out of fear, to find work, or in the last few years because the stream which provided drinking water and irrigated the crops has dried up. No one lives in Hunderman now, but the traditionally-constructed houses are intact. Several of them have their original contents, too: it is as if the inhabitants have just popped out. Ilyaz, who showed us around, was born in Hunderman, and his former home is one of those we visited. We saw his mother’s wedding dress and cooking vessels, what’s left of his father’s final tobacco harvest, and heard him reminisce about his childhood in a community whose cultural, economic, and ethnic ties stretch far beyond the Line of Control. 

There were many times during the tour when I felt I was in Central Asia; India seemed physically and culturally a long way away. If you have previously visited India’s Golden Triangle, and perhaps had a taste of the Silk Roads in Uzbekistan, China, or Iran, the Himalayas is the missing link in the chain joining the two regions together.